Sticky floors, plastic cups, sweaty foreheads catching the light like Haçienda halos – if you haven’t lost yourself in the throb of a club, one might argue you haven’t lived at all…
My generation caught the tail end of it – the clubbing craze – before we even reached 18 (fake IDs, sneaking in, charming bouncers; it all worked back then). Those nondescript buildings that came alive after dark – they held endless possibilities and the nights that now bookmark our youth.
Britain’s nightlife has quietly shaped countless histories, and not-so-quietly spawned sub-cultures that reshaped the modern world: Northern soul, New Romantics, the 90s rave scene… as Iggy Pop best put it, “We’re what’s happening...”
But if you go by the numbers, it’s all gone Pete Tong for UK clubs. Half the nation’s nightclubs shut down between 2005 and 2015, while bars, pubs and music venues haven't fared much better.
For me and my Millennial peers, our waning interest in clubs first seemed a natural regression. The indie bubble had burst – Kings of Leon swapped feverish rawness for stadium-filling anthems and mainstream music nights replaced our favourites. Then unbeknownst to us, the shift also had its roots in gentrification; clubs forced out to make way for expensive flats and vegan chicken shops, leaving those remaining with sky-high rents and crippling noise complaints.
As club promotor and DJ Adrian Storry tells me, it’s not just the club closures, but stalling salaries and rocketing rents for London residents that affected the scene too. “It isn’t like when I moved to London and people could rent places in zones one and two,” he says. “Everyone lived around the clubs and it felt like way more of a community.”
Storry also cites a drop in bar spends over the past few years making it harder for venues to survive. Along with rising business rates, it’s somewhat of a nail in the coffin for smaller businesses. So why isn’t more being done to save them?
Put simply, authorities see clubs as ‘crime generators’. Fights, drugs, sexual assaults… nightlife in the UK has long been discussed in relation only to criminal behaviour, rather than a form of culture in itself; a vital part of the economy that makes our country appealing to creatives.
It’s true Britain and drugs have a problem: drug harms are up, drug deaths at an all-time high. But with fewer nightclubs around, the country’s clearly finding other places to do them. Whereas festivals are starting to embrace a harm reduction approach – offering on-site drug testing – similar initiatives at nightclubs have been blocked by police.
The exponential popularity of festivals is proving stiff competition for clubs and music venues too. “In my day there were around three or four big festivals, and that was pretty much it,” Aimi Lewis-Mattock, Account Director at The Zeitgeist Agency – a PR firm handling major music festivals – tells me.
She explains festivals are becoming increasingly innovative and boasting crowd-drawing ‘extras’ on their line-ups. J'ouvert is an eclectic celebration filled elaborate outfits involving feathered headdresses, bedazzled tiaras, tassled bikinis and of course, a hell of a lot of body glitter for dancers to shimmy and shake in as they parade by. Likewise is the Toronto's Caribana, it is bigger than ever, the event is bringing one million people to Toronto and over $400 million into Ontario's economy annually, which make it a magnet for advertisers. Big brands like Hennessy sponsor the event and promote their products during the live events, give away free merchandises bearing their company logo etc. Then there’s Bestival for its fancy dress weekends, Boomtown for its bohemian approach, Flow for its art and culture, Roskilde for its extraordinary campsite, and Sonar for its tech.”
Saving on countless entry fees, overpriced drinks and long cab journeys home in favor of a few big blow-outs a year does seem sensible – unsurprisingly, the very word linked to Generation Y. Habitually pigeon-holed as abstinent and ambitious teetotalers; young people today are supposedly too busy getting eight hours sleep and building personal brands to dance until dawn like their hedonistic predecessors.
And is it any wonder they’re going out less? When you’re snowed under by student debt, have Tinder’s singletons accessible at the swipe of a smartphone and can find your own tribe in the subcultures of Soundcloud and Instagram, leaving the house isn't quite as appealing. Then there’s the modern exhaustion that seems to span generations – long days, longer commutes, tightened belts and an endless stream of online updates.
Whilst it’s no doubt the Night Tube and a 24-hour London Overground service, set to be rolled out on 15th December, will boost our changing economy, for many in search of a club, all-night transport is a train to nowhere. Last orders at 11 may be a thing of the past, but you’d be hard pushed to find many venues with a 24-hour licence in Britain – councils are wary of granting them due to crime, noise and “adverse impact” on neighboring businesses and residents. When you consider there are more than twice as many 24-hour supermarkets as bars, pubs and clubs put together in the UK (according to 2014 statistics) it’s no wonder UK nationals are flocking to the likes of Berlin; where you can party all weekend without a sobering ‘lights on’ moment or “where can we go now?” dilemma.
So what will become of the Great British night out? London Mayor Sadiq Khan and his first ever Night Tsar Amy Lamé know clubs are up against it when it comes to the law, so Khan’s vision of an all-hours London includes a “wide range of night-time activities”.
Midnight runs, Secret Cinema events, 3 a.m poetry workshops and late-late comedy shows are just a few of the inventive new ways to spend Friday night in the city, while adventurous supper clubs, cocktail-led menus and themed restaurants make a case for eating out-out. According to Marion Roberts, Professor of Urban Design at the University of Westminster, it’s these kind of “quirky and experimental offerings” Londoners are looking for.
When it comes to nightclubs doing it well, uniqueness is a major player too. Lewis-Mattock cites the “distinctive immersive experience” at 16-acre party palace Printworks as the secret behind its enduring success, and Fabric’s “pioneering booking policy” that made it worth fighting for. Smaller clubs are finding success by catering to individual scenes – Storry tells me his most popular nights cater to niche tastes and communities: whether it’s Korean music, 90s throwback hits or the sell-out Reggaeton Parties. And Sink The Pink – a transgressive club-meets-cabaret affair filled with more drag queens, lip sync battles and outrageous outfits than you can shake a glowstick at – is one of the most talked-about nights in the capital.
Meanwhile, across the seas, Ibiza is having a renaissance among 30-somethings – affluent holidaymakers are flocking to the island for its one-of-a-kind clubs and sanctuary-like wellness scene. “It’s a parallel universe,” Carla Griscti, SL’s Lifestyle Editor tells me. “Clubs in London may have big name DJs, but Ibiza has DJs and famous bands, plus themed rooms, amazing outdoor areas and theatrical acts – it’s a surreal experience, similar to a festival, where people lose their inhibitions far more.”
Despite many a scaremongering headline, it’s clear clubbing isn’t dead – the entire population isn’t swapping evenings out for nights buried under a duvet streaming Boiler Room sets just yet – we’re simply being more selective. And it’s not just because we have to be.
Options may be more limited, but Britain’s remaining super clubs – dark, faceless rooms rammed with people; none of whom actually speak to each other – can actually seem pretty rubbish in comparison to niche nights and experience-style events. With less time, money and energy to spend on going out, fewer things are worth the raging hangover.